The Effects of Trauma

Whether it comes in the form of violence, abuse, or neglect, trauma leaves an indelible mark on a person's life. Trauma changes a person's brain. And in terms of the Native community, we speak often of compounding trauma.

Compounding, or complex, trauma is described as a series of traumatic events which occur so close together that the individual does not have sufficient time to heal in between. This could be a child who daily wonders where his next meal will come from. It could also be a teenager, like many Natives, who suffer one suicide after another without time to mourn in between. It could be a child in an urban city exposed to abuse in the home and violence on the streets every day walking to school. 

When a person, and more specifically a child, is continually exposed to stress and panic, it can upset hormones and neurotransmitters. Likewise, an individual who is constantly in survival mode will begin to mold their brain into thinking panic and stress are essential to living. On top of that, a child struggling to survive cannot pay attention in school and cannot learn how to develop and nurture good relationships, who turns into an adult who never learned how to learn or how to appropriately interact with other adults.

When this occurs throughout a childhood, that child turns into a parent who only knows this life and "teaches" it to their children, and those children turn into parents, and so on until we have intergenerational trauma that grows exponentially with each new set of parents. 

We see this type of inherited trauma in urban communities, in small rural towns, and on reservations.


So where did it start for Native peoples?

We can trace the effects of trauma all the way back to the start of our nation. From the beginning, colonists, followed by the westward moving pioneers, pushed Native communities into the downward spiral we find them today. It is unlikely there is a singular moment, but, instead, a number of events that began the intergenerational, or historical, trauma of Native peoples.

It may have started with the decimation of Native tribes through disease brought over by explorers and colonists. The death of large groups of people tends to be traumatic.

It may have started with the massacres of whole villages due to the unfounded fear of the "murderous savage" stirred up in newspapers as a political ploy to rid the land of its current inhabitants. The loss of whole villages which may have included your extended family is traumatic.

It may have started with removing tribes from their ancestral land, away from European-populated areas, to the unwanted areas of the country. Being forced to move to a place without the means to survive would be very traumatic.

It may have started with taking children from their families and placing them in boarding schools, like Carlisle Indian School and Haskell Indian Industrial School, where supposed men of Jesus forced them to deny their culture, cut their hair, and "become white." Being told that how you were born and raised is wrong and the Creator will never accept you as you are, is going to leave some lasting effects on a person.


What affect does this have on today’s generation?

According to one study, a child who suffers abuse and neglect is 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile.

Adults who have expereinced trauma in childhood are 28% more likely to participate in criminal activity and 30% more likely to be involved in a violent crime.

We see this play out regularly on the tribal reservations where crime rates are, in some places, 2.5 times the national average.

One in 3 Native women will experience sexual assualt.

Native children experience post-traumatic stress disorder at roughly the same rate as service members returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. And they’re twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24.


Why can’t they just get over it?

As calous as that statement sounds, we’ve heard it… many times.

Attitudes likes this lack the understanding of how trauma is passed from one generation to the next - trauma that can affect whole communities long after the tramatic event takes place. Without the tools to begin to heal, and the grace of our Heavenly Father, the next generation of Native children will continue to relive the mistakes of their parents and grandparents.

Regardless of where the intergenerational trauma began, Lutheran Indian Ministries, with your help, is stepping up to help fix it. By supporting biblically-based programs like Sacred Ground, Celebrate Recovery, and Fatherhood is Sacred/Motherhood is Sacred, together, we can begin to lead Native families out of the oppressive weight of trauma and into God's glorious light.

As Christians, we know our joy and hope come through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, but for many Native peoples, whose trauma was first inflicted by men claiming to be followers of Christ, we need to help heal those wounds before they can be open to Christ.


Beginning the Conversation

For generations, Native people have been taught never to speak of their abuse. Over and over, we hear stories of adults who, as abused children, tried to get help from parents and elders and were told they must never speak of it again. Being abused brought shame onto the family and the community. The abused hide and suffer in silence until the hurt and depression show up as anger and another generation finds themselves in the same cycle.

Without dealing with the underlying problems - the wounds of the heart and the historical trauma - the circle of abuse, addiction, and suicide cannot end, and a nation of people will continue to live in darkness. But, there is a tremendous power in telling your story. By putting your pain into words and sharing with a trusted group, we begin to open our hearts to hope, and that’s where the Holy Spirit can enter.

(Read more about our work in action: Carrying the Light and Hungry for God)


Lutheran Indian Ministries proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ with Native American peoples, disciples Native leaders to share the Gospel with their brothers and sisters, and addresses social sufferings in a way that values Native cultures.